"If your mother says she loves you, check it out," I often found myself in disagreement with some of his pronouncements. So, with the help of some distance past his passing from the corporeal realm, I choose to commemorate his life by ruminating on my personal relationship to something he thoroughly detested: the film adaptation of his 1968 novel MYRA BRECKINRIDGE...because, to paraphrase what was once said about Led Zeppelin, I can only honor the great contrarian by destroying him.
For the uninitiated, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was an amusing book by Gore Vidal that was turned into a harshly comic, proto-FIGHT CLUB rant on Hollywood by director Michael Sarne. The mysterious Myra (Racquel Welch), an inveterate lover of old-time movie glamour, comes to town to subvert and destroy all the trappings of new Hollywood -- overt macho, method acting, etc. She will run riot on her ersatz uncle-in-law, fallen cowboy star Buck Loner (John Huston), and seduce both man's man Rusty (Roger Herren) and his sugar-sweet girlfriend Mary Ann (Farrah Fawcett). The movie had instantly piqued my curiosity when my seventh-grade teacher, already savvy to my film obsession, lent me her copy of the Medved brothers' now-rather-harsh-and-easily-debunked book "THE FIFTY WORST FILMS OF ALL TIME," and it had a very detailed chapter about its notoriety. At the dawn of videotape rentals, I insisted my dad bring it home to watch, and it quickly became one of my favorite bizarre movies (and, if you wanna get technical, my first X-rated movie). As a child, I had embraced this as gonzo camp, under that unbearably hoary cliché of "so bad it's good" (which is so overused, it's done!), but over the years I've turned a corner (and I know I'm quite alone in this assessment) and openly declared this a misunderstood classic. Part of my reasoning came from reading the source novel it was based on a few years later as a full-fledged hormonal teenager: somehow, I just wasn't as entertained by Vidal's prose as I had been by the movie's repurposing of it. And I found the constant references to then-obscure-to-me-names like Pandro S. Berman and Francis X. Bushman to grow tedious. I could sense that this was subject matter that Vidal, through his protagonist, was not joking about, that he really was waging some sort of culture war against those damned hippie actors and their "Stanislavski" and their "naturalism" and wanted them all to get off of his Hollywood lawn. I found new cement for my reappraisal upon seeing David Fincher's groundbreaking FIGHT CLUB in 1999, because in its approach to adapting Chuck Palahniuk's best-seller, it was really following the exact same template: not only do both films satirize their target subjects, but they satirize their very own selves, reminding the audience that they are watching a movie and to not take anything seriously. Rather than treat the author's work like sacred canon, they openly challenge and exploit the flaws in the source material, an approach which a post-modern writer like Palahniuk seemed to enjoy, but which clearly rankled the comparably self-serious Vidal.
my experience with Tamara Hernandez and recording the commentary for MEN CRY BULLETS. GUESS WHO GOT TO SIT IN ON THE COMMENTARY RECORDING THAT FRIDAY AFTERNOON? (Yes, that moment still delights me that much that I needed the color emphasis on that rhetorical question.) Besides myself, Michael invited Stanley Sheff, an old friend, apprentice to Orson Welles, and director of LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS, to give him pointers as well. This setup was nice -- my first time in a soundproofed room, with timecode, synchronized recording with the master tapes -- way more pro than the D.I.Y. manner in which I had done Tamara's recording. Only Michael would be miked however -- we could prompt and comment during dead spots, but it would not be included -- the final audio is a complete stream of talk from him, though on occasion, you can tell he is answering a question one of us asked. And it was great, with good dishy details on the fighting and studio politics that went down during production. I was happy to be a part of it, however small. Afterward, the three of us went to brunch at Du-Par's, and I got to hear great tales of how long ago, when Sheff was working at the Whisky-a-Go-Go, he would raid movie lab dumpsters for stuff to run as loops behind bands and dancers, and how it became a mini-phenom there. And how he got to work under Welles on some of his later projects. I then gave Sarne a lift back to where he was staying, and he invited me in for a quick drink. We talked, I told him some of my film ideas and how at that point of my residency, despite four years and the big ups and downs I had taken, I loved this place and never regretted coming. He made me feel really significant. And he gave me an invite to watch the reediting later that week.
Oh, I should elaborate. In an extremely interesting turn of events we shall not likely see from a major studio again, 20th Century Fox not only commissioned a de riguer commentary track, but they allowed him to make minor reedits to the film. MYRA punctuates it's story points with classic film clips (a la DREAM ON if you remember that HBO series), and initially certain clips were denied him despite being in a workprint that tested well in San Francisco. Most notoriously, a MYRA character's fantasy sequence would have been followed by a clip from REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, where Shirley Temple attempts to milk a goat and gets sprayed with the white stuff. She was not amused at the juxtaposition, and used near-Presidential influence to have it removed. While Sarne was still not allowed to use that clip, he was allowed to use a similar substitute (if one could be found), to smooth out and fix transitions between the film and the clips, and to make a key alteration to the film's ending in the manner of the DVD-only, "easter egg" B&W opening sequence on THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. So now, I had not only sat in on the recording of an aural history of one of my favorite films, I was going to watch it get reedited, an enormous privilege!
But then, there was the big task. As I said before, there was the matter of that payoff to the dream sequence and the Temple clip was still off limits. But Sarne had permission to replace the mundane "cannon fire" clip that had been ultimately inserted in the original version. We had discussed during a break in the previous commentary recording why that scene was so funny in it's original conception. It wasn't just the juxtaposition of a face full of milk to an physical body reaction, it was that it was Shirley Temple, America's sweetheart and paragon of purity and virtue, getting the mess. So the best way to try to get the same effect would be to find a clip of a similarly beloved movie star looked to for her "virtue". At the session, only two movies had been provided by the Fox archivists for us to search for clips -- AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and MOVE OVER DARLING. (Interestingly, MOVE OVER DARLING had originally been intended as a Marilyn Monroe film -- the unfinished SOMETHING'S GOT TO GIVE -- and footage from that abandoned shoot does appear in MYRA, in a scene where Marilyn appears to meet the characters in another scene shot at the same poolside). When I arrived, they were trying some scene from AFFAIR, involving Deborah Kerr reacting with mock revulsion at Cary Grant over some affront while swimming, as the replacement clip. I could see the logic, but we all agreed quickly it wasn't doing the job. So we put MOVE OVER DARLING in the deck and fast-forwarded looking for stuff. Doris Day certainly fit the bill as the kind of "good girl" archetype that could provide our punchline, provided we find the right clip. First, there was a scene of her peeking behind bushes at a romantic encounter between James Garner and another girlfriend, and her facial expressions of shock and huff played well, as if reacting to the event it would be preceding. But we wanted to keep looking. And then, comedy gold fell into our laps. A chase scene led to Doris driving a tricked-out Chrysler Imperial convertible into a car wash. And by nervous fumbling with the auto controls, down went the windows and water began to rain into the car. Then came the soap and wax dispenser (0:46-0:49)...
As John Ritter said in SKIN DEEP, "THERE IS A GOD! AND HE'S A GAG WRITER!" Instantly, all three of us were nearly out of our chairs; we didn't even need to try inserting it to know we had our, sorry but I gotta say it, money shot. We did a bit of fine-tuning to figure out when to start and stop the clip (ideally, it was supposed to use the exact same number of seconds as the clip it would replace), but for all purposes, we were very happy. A test screening a week later for friends and video department brass had everyone laughing at the new edit.
However, much as with Ms. Temple Black, the former Doris Van Kappelhoff was not amused either by this editorial choice, and would not sign off on its use. The fact that the bulk of her career consisted of many innuendo-laced comedies opposite the biggest closet case in Hollywood history would have implied to me she oughta have a more developed sense of humor about such things. In the final cut that made it to DVD, Sarne used a good-but-not-as-good Laurel & Hardy moment for his punch line. But o! what a fine moment that was. The thrill of discovery, the belly laughs, the ability to say "I was there, I saw it happen." I got a preview of what it would likely be like to edit my own movie, and find a moment on that bench that really works, that you know is solid. And though it could not survive in reality, it survives in my head, and now in this account.
So, Mr. Vidal, I hope you can respect the notion of agreeing to disagree on this movie. Not like you're in any position to castigate me now, you motherfucker...as the children say nowadays.